Holy Week Devotional: The Resurrection of Lazarus
For the season of Lent, my church put together a devotional on the theme of Jesus meeting us in our suffering. I wrote the piece below, on the passage in John that describes the resurrection of Lazarus, to include in this devotional; as Holy Week begins, it seems appropriate to include it here, on a blog about what it means to live a resurrection life.
John 11:1-44 (NIV, via BibleGateway)
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
We all like stories with happy endings: the dream achieved, the family reunited, the conflict resolved. And the story of Lazarus, recorded in John 11, telegraphs its happy ending from the very beginning. In verse 4, Jesus promises that Lazarus’ illness will not end in death; in verse 14, Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus is dead — but that Jesus will wake him up. And in verses 25-6, when Jesus comes to Lazarus’ grieving sisters, he tells Martha that he is the resurrection and the life; anyone who believes in him will not die. John leaves his readers in no doubt that the story will end triumphantly, as indeed it does when Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave in verse 43.
From one angle, this story of Lazarus tells us that through Christ we will experience healing for all of our suffering, including our deaths. Our healing is not typically as dramatic as that of Lazarus, but we believe that Christ has defeated sin and death and that because of his victory we will live eternally.
But this triumphant reading of the story skips over the middle. After telling his disciples that he will awaken Lazarus and assuring Martha that he is the resurrection and the life, Jesus speaks to Mary, Lazarus’ other sister. Like Martha, Mary tells Jesus that her brother would still be alive had Jesus arrived earlier. But when he sees Mary’s overwhelming grief, Jesus does not immediately raise Lazarus. Instead, Jesus is so troubled that he weeps with Mary and the mourners at Lazarus’ tomb.
Jesus intends, from the beginning of the story, to raise Lazarus from the dead — and he does so at the end of the story. But despite this, in the middle of the story he weeps.
We, like Mary and Martha, live in the middle of the story. Like Mary and Martha, we believe that Jesus came to bring healing and we believe that the resurrection is coming; but also like these sisters, our faith does not remove suffering from our lives. We often want to skip this painful middle and arrive at the happy ending. But the story of Lazarus shows us that we will meet suffering in the middle and we will find Christ grieving alongside us. Grief is not a lack of faith or a loss of hope; instead, grief comes from the inevitable effects of sin and death. Even Jesus grieved when he encountered the suffering of his beloved friends.
As Christians, we know that our story will end in joy and life. But we hold this in tension with the pain and sorrow of the present world, and we find hope not only in the ending but in knowing that our savior walks with us through the middle.